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Comms Principle #5: Engaging Senior Management

Having not blogged since early March (well over 4 months ago), I’d like to start by saying that this next post has been several months in the making.  That would imply that there’s going to be lots of good stuff in it.

Unfortunately, though I’d like to say it, I can’t.  I just got real busy starting a new job and the blog slipped off the radar for a few months.  Last week however, a colleague whose opinions I value said she’d enjoyed reading this and that I really should find time to continue.  She was right and so here I am, back at the keyboard on a Sunday morning.  (You know who you are – thank you).

So while I clearly haven’t been researching and writing this next post for months, I can however say that it has been many years in the making.  In fact, this particular post was prompted by a message I received from Project Management Hut in response to Principle #2, where I alluded to a previous experience that I will now describe in detail.

In the nearly two decades that I’ve been creating and giving communications and presentations to and for senior management, I’ve tried a few things that have failed, and a few that worked, and I like to think that the more I do it the better I know how to do it.

So let me say, first of all, that this post is not about how to engage properly with a group of senior stakeholders that your project needs to convince to follow a management-instituted program of change.  It is about engaging with the senior executive within your project, and allowing him or her to engage in a meaningful way with those whose permission he or she needs to run the project.  I feel that I’ve covered the former group in an earlier post.  The latter group are different beasts.

A number of years ago, I got the chance to work for a man who went on to become my personal business hero.  I’m not going to mention his name since that would be indiscreet, so for now let’s just call him Bob (and before anyone goes running to LinkedIn, he’s not one of my contacts).

Bob took over a project that had cost a small fortune to run, had produced next to nothing of value, and whose executive level sponsors were growing impatient.

One of his first tasks – we all knew this – was going to be to trim the project team.  I was absolutely certain that I would be in the firing line since Comms is always an easy sacrificial lamb and, if I’m honest, I had achieved nothing of value either.

However, as I went through the first couple of weeks and he pulled his plans together (barely speaking to me at all), I became impressed with his clarity of vision, his no bullshit attitude and his absolute focus on coming up with a recommendation that made sense, irrespective of who it annoyed, or indeed whose career it impacted.

Finally, he gathered his extended senior team (about 15 of us) together.  That team nominally included me, but ironically I’m damn certain he didn’t know my name.

He presented his goals, objectives and plans, with such simplicity of thought that the conclusion he led us all to was inescapable.  Then he went round the table, asking everyone in turn if they were happy.  Yes, yes, yes came the replies, one after another.

Knowing that the plan of the previous project leader had bogged down due to a lack of air-cover from senior management, I still had doubts.  But I’d heard good things about him, and I liked his vision so (figuring that I was going to be fired anyway), when he turned to me and said “Are you happy?”, I decided to simply put my cards on the table.

I told him that I wasn’t happy.  I said that I’d seen a lot of plans which made sense and that failed to deliver.  I informed him that even if this plan turned out to be better, the road ahead would still be long and hard, and the challenges were no less real with his leadership that they had been before.  The room went very quiet.

Your country needs you!

Your country needs you!

Then I added that I had asked colleagues whose opinions I respected for their views of him, and had heard that he never set an objective that he didn’t truly believe he could deliver and that his focus once an objective was established was intense.  I concluded that, while still being unable to proclaim myself happy, I was perhaps somewhat more optimistic.  I was painfully aware that I was the only person who had said they were not happy but, as my father used to say, faint heart never won fair lady.

Bob pointed his finger at me, and fired me.

Just kidding.  He banged his fist on the table and (literally) shouted “You are on my team”.

Four weeks later, the project team of nearly 100 had been cut to about 15 and over the next two years, this man became an inspiration to me.

Our first six months were essentially spent pulling together a recommendation for the Corporate Executive Board.  With so much money spent already, it was hard to do anything other than continue, rework the strategy, bring in fresh thinking/energy and charge at the brick wall again.

Bob had different ideas.  And as I spent hour after hour, week after week, working with him and pulling the essence of his proposal into a presentation (or in reality a series of them), I grew to understand the importance of engagement and syndication.

He took his ideas to each board member individually, and listened to their responses.  He edited the proposal.  He engaged with other key stakeholders, and edited it again (or rather I did).  He crunched masses of data, but only with a view of reducing everything to a simple expression.  He syndicated with the board again.

The proposal, in essence, was to kill the project.  And this proposal was going to be a shock since the amount spent was already – well – think of a really huge number and then double it.

Not only did the proposal recommend killing the project, it clearly articulated the reasons.

The reasons were varied and complex, but were expressed as simple, direct sentences.  And much as they pointed the finger at the project team, they were also very clearly about the failings of the senior executives, many of whom sat in that room.

I’m paraphrasing, but basically the recommendation ran as follows.

Protect your ground troops

Protect your ground troops

You guys keep asking us to spin gold out of straw.  While this is difficult, we all know that it is also possible.  Others know it’s possible too.  But it’s going to require a lot of change and a lot of people don’t like that.  The key issue is that you tell us to deliver it but you don’t share your direction with the rest of the organization, you don’t take ownership of the outcome, and you don’t stake your credibility on its success.  I therefore recommend we kill this right now, write the money off and let everyone go because until you are prepared to show commitment, your approval has no value.

He then went on to reveal that the pre-syndication of the presentation showed that half the board agreed with this position, and supported the recommendation, a fact that surprised the board but was entirely accurate.

The presentation was, of course, a double-bluff.  He knew they could not be seen to just chalk this up to experience and close it down, but he equally knew that without air cover the project was doomed to failure.  The repeated requests from some board members to “prove it” (as opposed to approve it or kill it) were a smokescreen for a lack of either understanding or courage.  He even produced an airline ticket, dated for the next day, to demonstrate that he fully expected to be fired as a result of having the temerity to point this out and was ready to fly home into retirement.

As he had hoped, the board than asked what he would ask of them.  What was the level of commitment needed?

Alexander and the Gordian Knot

Alexander and the Gordian Knot

He shared details of what would be required, what the benefits were, and what the huge challenges would be that needed to be addressed.  And then he told them the story of Alexander and the Gordian Knot, and said that great leaders with true sense of purpose will not shrink from enforcing the difficult decisions.

I’m sure you’ve found this little story fascinating.  Or maybe you haven’t.  But it was a story I thought was worth telling because I personally learned so much from it.  The lessons, which I find hold true to this day, break down into four simple but powerful requirements:

Air Cover – Your executive sponsors must be made to understand that if they make a decision, they have to stand by it, display visible commitment to it, and put their own credibility on the line.  Approving something and then abdicating responsibility for delivery is a copout and your change program is likely to crumble at the first sign of resistance because it has no foundation.

Enforcement – Every now and again you will meet a naysayer who is very senior, maybe even a board member.  Do what you can to find out their views, why they dispute your strategy, and try to convince them.  However, if it proves impossible, that is the time the head honchos earn their salaries.  Are the objections reasonable?  If so they must be considered carefully.  If not, the principals of the company need to be prepared to use Alexander’s solution to sever that which cannot be unravelled.

Incentives – There is no clearer way of displaying commitment to something than by tying your bonus to its delivery.  It takes a very brave person to suggest this to a senior executive team (as Bob did) and it takes an even braver executive to agree, but no signal can be sent that is more impactful.

Syndication – Until I met Bob, I had always believed that keeping your powder dry was the best way to ensure maximum effect.  And it is.  But it is not a way of ensuring maximum consensus.  By soliciting responses, you not only understand what the objections are,  you also develop a map of who supports you and why.  This knowledge is invaluable if you know you are going to need to make some direct comments.

Bob has been retired for several years now.  I still hear from him every couple of years.  But I will never forget the 24 months I worked for him.  He taught me more about listening than anyone I have ever known.

Listening is the key to any successful change program.  Many people think that listening is an entirely passive activity, but they couldn’t be more wrong.  Listening is the single most proactive step you can take towards understanding.  It is therefore a particular shame that so many senior managers mistake listening for inactivity.  In my entire career, I have never been busier than the first six months Bob and I spent listening, adjusting, and listening again.

Sometime in hopefully the near future, I will get around to the next post, which will be the last in this series about Communications Principles.

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